Saturday, February 3, 2018

The book Philip gave me: "Making Bombs for Hitler"

My 10-year-old great-grandson Philip, son of my first-born grandchild Julia and grandson of my daughter Elissa, handed me a book he had just read. "I think you'll like this, Nana," he said.

The book is Making Bombs for Hitler (Scholastic Inc., 2017), by popular Ukrainian-Canadian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (pronounced Skrip-ich). The title captured me right away.

"You read this book about such a serious subject?" I ask. He nods, smiles. I give him a hug. He is so proud of himself, and I of him!

Philip is right. I liked this book. I'm a historian. I taught American history to students at various colleges over the years. I directed NEH state programs in DC and Florida to bring history to the public. I lived in the town of Starobelsk in eastern Ukraine for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. While living there (2009-11) I picked up bits and pieces of a World War II history that I never knew before, a shocking history uncovered only since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The badge worn by child slaves
 in German labor camps.
Making Bombs for Hitler encompasses this history.  The novel, written for kids Philip's age, but really for people of all ages, tells the sad and little-known story of the Ostarbeiters (literally "eastern workers").  The Ostarbeiters were mostly Ukrainian children, ages 7-14 on average, whom the Nazis kidnapped and forced into slavery in German labor camps to keep the Nazi war machine going.  It's estimated that more than 2.5 million children were sent to these camps. Many thousands died from starvation and overwork.

Skrypuch draws on real-life stories of survivors to tell the harrowing tale of Lida and her sister Larissa. She dedicates the book "to Anelia V, whose detailed recall of day-to-day life as a Nazi slave helped me create an accurate world for Lida."

The accuracy of Lida's world horrifies.

The story begins in the brutal reality that Yale historian Timothy Snyder documents in his best-selling book The Bloodlands: Eastern Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2012). The sisters' father is killed by the Russians and their mother is shot by the Nazis for harboring Jewish neighbors.  Lida, Larissa and her family, archetypal of their time and place, are literally viciously trapped between Hitler and Stalin.

Philip and Chase reading books at Costco while
GranElissa  shops. Love to see my grands reading.
Lida and Larissa, living with their grandmother after their parents' murders, scared, hoping they might be safe because they aren't Jewish, are kidnapped by the Nazis. Clinging to each other for dear life, a Nazi nurse separates them despite, or because of, their protests. Lida's pain and confusion are heart-wrenching. What's happening? Where are we going? What will happen to my sister? What will happen to me?

Lida, just ten years old but advised to pretend to be older, is herded onto an overcrowded cattle car and left floundering in shock with hundreds of other children, without food, air or water, a hole in the corner for a toilet, like the death trains that took Jewish prisoners to concentration camps and other Eastern European victims to Russian gulags. Fear and "the smell of misery" envelops her.

It never goes away. The labor camps are vicious. Underfed, hardly clothed, indiscriminately "disciplined" by sadistic guards, exposed to the arbitrary outbursts of the Gestapo or industrial plant guards, witnesses to and victims of inhuman brutality, many of the Ostarbeiters did not live to tell their story.

Can one's sense of humanity and decency survive under such conditions?  Lida's struggle to survive and find her sister Larissa brings more horror than hope. But somehow, Lida never gives up. She draws strength from deep within that she didn't know she had. She remembers her mother telling her "you can find beauty anywhere." She tries.  At a low point in the camp, she pleads with a despairing friend, both worked beyond endurance, to fight to stay alive. "If you don't live, who will tell your story after the war ends?"  

The rest of the story highlights how these brave young workers sabotage the bombs they are forced to make under the hateful eyes and constant death threats of their supervisors. They are also victims of increased Allied bombings that targeted Nazi munition factories near war's end. 

As the Nazis began fleeing the camps and destroying evidence of their existence, Lida learns from her friend Juli, who worked in the camp's hospital, a gruesome assignment, that Officer Schmidt, the sadistic head of the labor camp, had ordered the cook to poison the workers' soup. "All the Eastern workers who were in camp today died."

Lida's fury rises up. "The Nazis will pay for these murders," she whispers to her horrified friend, as they continue sabotaging bombs one after another. "They should think twice before asking slaves to make bombs."  Who knows how many bombs failed to explode because of the efforts of these children, but their courage is breathtaking.

Making Bombs for Hitler ends in the same Bloodlands reality as it began.  After the Nazi labor camps came the Russian Gulags. The Red Army, every bit as cruel as the Nazis, hunted and captured the terrorized survivors and sent them to their deaths in Siberia. "They called us traitors," the young boy Luka, who barely survives this fate, tells Lida.  "But you were a prisoner of the Nazis," she says. "It doesn't matter," he replies, clearly traumatized beyond measure by his near-death experiences. "We can never go home again."  So they wandered, these lost young souls, in post-traumatic shock, into and around displaced persons camps, wondering where they would end up, what would happen to them. A lucky few found new homes in western Europe or the U.S., or were adopted in Canada and other countries. Skrypuch, a Ukrainian-Canadian, suggests this ending for Lida and Larissa. 

I asked Philip what he thought of the book. "I think Lida was a very brave girl."  How would you have survived?  "I would do what Lida did, and for sure sabotage those bombs like she did." He did wonder if he could survive on the camp diet of  watery turnip soup. "Maybe I would have gotten very weak," he admitted, "too weak to work, maybe too weak to live."  He pondered that. So did I.
* * *
On the complicated history of Chernivtsi oblast in western Ukraine:

On the Ostarbeiters. Ukrainian references from my friend Natalia Dohadailo in Starobelsk. They can be translated.  Thanks also to Olga Koulich-mirochnychenko for sharing information.

About the author:

For World War II historical context: Timothy Snyder, BLOODLANDS: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010).   The "Bloodlands" is the region that includes modern-day Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic states.  Snyder's thesis is that this is where "the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Hitler interacted to increase suffering and bloodshed many times worse than any seen in western history." Snyder painstakingly documents how Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany committed mass killings of more than 14 million unarmed non-combatants and civilians outside the death camps of the Holocaust during World War II and afterwards. These were Intentional policies of mass murder, including Stalin's Katyn Forest Massacre of Polish army officers and POWs, the Nazi's deliberate starvation of 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, and outright executions and death camps on both sides of the Nazi/Soviet line.
      The citizens of these countries were literally caught between two bloody regimes, with no exit.   I've been learning more about eastern Europe ever since I lived in Ukraine, a traumatized society to this day. After the Nazi atrocities came the Stalin atrocities, when Red Army soldiers hunted the scarred and scared survivors and treated them like traitors. They captured thousands upon thousands of Ostarbeiters as they wandered the countryside or ended up in Displaced Persons Camps and sent them to Russian gulags. From Nazi labor camps to Soviet Gulags. Imagine it.

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